The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
Coming out of Burlingame High School, the biggest rap on Fietonga “Benji” Palu was he was too short to play high-level college football.
After two years at College of San Mateo, Palu hasn’t grown any taller, but a position change — from guard to center — along with a strong performance in the classroom has led Palu to orally commit to play football at the University of California this upcoming season.
Palu still has one summer school class to finish, but he said he has already been accepted to Cal.
“[Cal] was always a dream school, but I never imagined (going there). A couple years ago, (the then) offensive line coach told me I was too small.
“I heard that from numerous Division I coaches.”
Palu had another standing offer from Eastern Michigan University, but decided to stay closer to home.
Other than the height issue, Palu had all the tools to be a Division I-caliber recruit said his high school coach.
“I say the same thing about Benji that I said about (former Burlingame standout) Drew Shiller: if he was four inches taller, he would be in the NFL,” said John Philipopoulos, Burlingame’s football coach, who said Palu was 5-10, 5-11 as a senior. “Benji possesses intangibles other kids his age don’t possess.”
At 6-1, 282 pounds, Palu doesn’t have the size to match up with defensive ends and tackles. But his height makes him perfect for the center spot, where coaches look for players with lower centers of gravity.
“That’s where the shorter guys need to go, center,” said Bret Pollack, CSM head coach and offensive coordinator. “The biggest concern was the height. That’s why we moved him to center. A lot of times, people are scratched (from consideration) because of height. With Benji, (the question was) will someone take a shot on him, even though he doesn’t have long arms? What he got here (at CSM) was a chance to play at a higher level and answer some of those questions.”
Palu credits Pollack for instilling in him the mindset of controlling what he could control. Palu didn’t have much say on his height, but Palu had total control of the effort he gave in the classroom, in the weight room and on the field.
“Benji has always been … doing things the right way. … Doing things to the best of his ability,” Pollack said. “That’s served him well. He strived to get better every day.”
Palu was an NCAA qualifier coming out of high school and had the opportunity to walk on with several programs, but he wanted more. He started by enrolling and playing at CSM.
“Coming to CSM was probably the best decision ever,” Palu said. “Not only did they prepare me for university-level courses, but taught me how to be a man, how to carry yourself as an adult. They helped me mature a lot.”
While Burlingame helped prepare Palu for CSM, CSM has prepared him for the four-year level, which was the gatekeeper for playing at a four-year school. Palu said if a player doesn’t have the grades, recruiters won’t even talk about football.
“The biggest thing about four-year college coaches, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is, ‘I want to see your grades,’” Palu said. “Before they introduce themselves, they’ll ask me my GPA, about my high school grades. Education is number one with all four-year coaches.
“Before they even mention football, they pick at your transcripts.”
Pollack said the requirements necessary to get into a four-year school has changed — and they are even more stringent for student-athletes than non-student-athletes.
“Because of that, schools are being much more selective of who they take, as far as performance in the classroom,” Pollack said. “[Grades are a] big filter.”
Added Palu: “The work in the classroom plays a big part (in the recruiting process).”
Now, Palu just has to show the Cal coaches that he can get it done in the trenches as well.
“All I ever really needed was an opportunity and fortunately Cal was the school that would give me the opportunity and take the risk,” Palu said. “I know for a lot of coaches it is a risk, but I know wherever I ended up I’d give my full 110 percent.”
Philipopoulos believes Palu will open some eyes at the next level.
“If you look at DI football players who play offensive line, they are typically 6-4, 6-5. Benji is not that, but he’s done enough to put himself into a position to play against those guys,” Philipopoulos said. “It’s a great success story. I think Benji is one of my favorite players I’ve coached — ever. He’s kind of an old soul. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”